Roberta Hestenes is associate professor of Christian formation and discipleship at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. She is herself a graduate of the school, and has been a member of the faculty since 1975. She is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and has firsthand knowledge of changes seen in recent years as more and more women have entered seminary and ministry. In an interview, she discussed her experience and views.

How have you seen opportunities for women in the church change over the past 25 years?

I was a student with my husband at Fuller from 1959 to 1961, and at that time we had very few women on campus. When I returned to Fuller as a faculty member in 1975, there were about 50 women in the student body. This year, we have over 700 women in in all the programs we offer. That is an enormous change. These women are entering a variety of church roles, many of which were not open to them 25 years ago.

What do you see happening in the next 15 years?

The fundamental issue facing the mainline churches will involve women serving as senior pastors. Women are being well accepted as assistant and associate pastors in team ministries, and there are hundreds of women serving as solo pastors, mainly in small, rural churches. Clergy couples are becoming common. There are now over 1,000 clergy couples serving denominations all over the country. We have not yet seen women emerging as senior pastors in larger, multiple-staff situations. What we have out there in the churches are women in their first jobs. Eventually, we will be faced with a phenomenon I call “all dressed up with no place to go.” Where are they going to go to find their second and third and fourth jobs?

Could you explain some of the history behind these recent changes?

I believe that this contemporary change in the role of women in the church lies in the Radical Reformation, the Quakers, and in the first feminist movement, which arose out of the movement to abolish slavery in the early and midnineteenth century. Many mainline, holiness, and Pentecostal churches had been ordaining women as elders and ministers for decades before the contemporary feminist movement began in the 1960s and ’70s. In the Presbyterian church, for instance, the movement to ordain women came in the 1930s through the 1950s. I think we have seen both progress and reaction as a result of the recent feminist movement, and now we have a polarized church.

When a church rejects the idea of women in leadership, is it because of theological issues or is it cultural?

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It depends on the congregation, and particularly on what the pastor is teaching the congregation. In conservative churches, of course, there is always a concern for what Scripture says. The dividing line has been between those who assume that 1 Timothy 2 settles the issue forever and those who believe that interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 alongside Acts 2, Galatians 3, and 1 Corinthians 11 allows for the leadership of women as well as men in the church. This is the basic biblical issue.

Culturally, there has been a temptation to take a particular form of the nuclear family as it emerged in America after World War II and make it the “biblical norm” for all Christian families. The image of the ideal suburban family, with the woman as full-time homemaker, is a model of very short duration throughout church history. Scripture gets used, in this case, to support a view of the family that is shaped by culture. For instance, black women have always worked, and the church has never really debated whether the poor black woman must work. Ruth worked. Priscilla made tents alongside of Aquila. The biblical patterns are much more varied.

How do men respond to women in ministry?

I have found men, by and large, surprisingly accepting. They are uncomfortable in the face of the unknown, but, very often, when they come to know women in ministry, there is collegiality and support. Within very conservative parts of the church, there can be hostility. And in many churches there is a tendency to ignore women and not take them as seriously as men. My own experience is different. I came to Fuller as the only woman on the faculty of the school of theology. We now have six women faculty. I serve as the chairperson of the board of World Vision International, which was an all-male board. I travel the world, and I have been amazed and pleased that Christian men, when they are exposed to Christian women as partners in ministry, are much more accepting than the stereotypes would suggest.

How do you hope to see women in leadership contribute to the work of the church?

I hope for better evangelism. As more and more women work outside the home and move into leadership roles in the secular culture, I am convinced that a church that will not take them seriously will lose its ability to evangelize among them. You simply cannot say to a woman who is a senior vice-president of a bank and handles millions of dollars daily that women cannot handle money and that to be an obedient Christian woman, she must not use these abilities.

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We’re all called to ministry. As the church takes seriously its women and the diversity of their gifts and calling, that is part of taking seriously the ministry of all of the people of God, to accomplish the task that desperately needs to be done. Both their résumés were sent to a church to which only David had planned to apply. The search committee was open to the idea—even excited about it. So the couple went there as a team and split church duties “right down the middle,” Dereen says. “It worked very well until we had children and needed extra income.” (She has now relinquished most of her pulpit responsibilities.)

The advantages of having copastors were readily recognized by the Vanderlinde-Abernathys’ congregation. “People had options—a choice of two personalities, two sets of gifts. Or they could come to both of us for counseling.”

But churches with the numbers and the budget to support two pastors are few and far between. In addition, some denominational structures work against the team approach. In the United Methodist hierarchy, new pastors are placed in small parishes with two or three other churches tied into the same “circuit.” If a husband and wife are both ordained, Methodist district superintendents face a tricky placement problem.

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